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Both of Holocaust survivor Agnes Heyman’s parents perished in concentration camps in 1944. Years before the family was uprooted from their home in Czechoslovakia, however, her father purchased a life insurance policy from Assicurazioni Generali S.P.A., an Italian insurance giant with offices worldwide. Yet Heyman, his sole beneficiary, has never received benefits of any kind. Fifty-six years later, the 76-year-old San Franciscan, who herself endured years in a string of concentration camps, is seeking justice. She was one of three plaintiffs in attendance at a press conference Wednesday at the Holocaust Memorial in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park to announce the filing of a class action against Generali. Nancy Sher Cohen, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, and David Lash, executive director of Bet Tzedek, a legal services agency based in L.A., are two of a number of attorneys uniting pro bono to battle Generali. While individual Holocaust survivors have settled suits against Generali, Smetana v. Assicurazioni Generali S.P.A., 312363, filed Tuesday in San Francisco Superior Court, is only the second class action Holocaust survivors have filed in the United States in an effort to collect insurance benefits. The first was filed against Generali and 15 other European insurers by Cohen in New York district court in 1997 on behalf of approximately 20 plaintiffs. “It has been stalled for quite some time,” said Cohen of the New York case, explaining that the defendants have filed a number of motions. She expects the same to happen in San Francisco but she is optimistic that her clients will prevail. “You have to have a lot of depth and endurance to win this,” she added, “and we have both.” Peter Simshauser, an L.A.-based Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom attorney who represents Generali, could not be reached for comment. While there are only a few named plaintiffs in the San Francisco suit to date, Cohen said she expects many more Holocaust survivors to come forward once they hear about it, as was the case in New York. “We believe that the Holocaust survivor community is a group for whom equal access to justice has not been available,” said Lash, who estimates there are about 20,000 Holocaust survivors in California. “These people are all frail, old and have no place else to turn,” he stated. “We’re here to ensure that their one last chance to get some salvation is successful. This suit, which alleges breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and unfair business practices, comes on the heels of an April report from the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims that states European insurers have been rejecting three of every four Holocaust-era claims. The commission — comprising five major insurance companies, including Generali — was formed in 1998 in hopes of resolving contentions that numerous insurers had wrongly failed to honor insurance claims filed by Holocaust survivors and their heirs. In joining the commission, Generali signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” in which the company agreed to establish a “just process” that “will expeditiously address the issue of unpaid insurance policies issued to victims of the Holocaust.” In denying Holocaust-era claims, insurance companies often contend the policies lapsed when policyholders stopped paying premiums during World War II. Such is the case with plaintiffs Fritzie Wolf and Ernest Smetana. Wolf and Smetana’s son Ron met with reporters at the Holocaust Memorial on Wednesday. Wolf and her brother Ernest, who live in the Bay Area, have been trying in vain for 35 years to collect on the policy purchased by their father, Hermann Smetana, in 1928. In 1965, Generali told the pair the policy had been cancelled for nonpayment of premiums in 1938 — the year their father was imprisoned in Dachau. In 1998, the siblings received a letter from Generali that contended, without explanation or documentation, that the policy had been surrendered in 1936. But they will not give up. “The money can never make anything good,” said 90-year-old Wolf, “but Generali shouldn’t profit from it.”

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